Every registered voter in Massachusetts would receive an application by mid-July to request a ballot to vote by mail in the 2020 elections under a plan released Friday by House and Senate Democrats intended to create more options for voters to safely participate in the electoral process during the coronavirus pandemic.
The proposal for expanded voting-by-mail would be coupled with in-person early voting before both the primary and general elections in September and November, and traditional voting at a local polling station during both elections.
With the bill, Massachusetts state lawmakers are inserting themselves directly into a fiery national debate over the integrity of mail-in voting, with President Donald Trump at the center of the conflagration. Trump has suggested that mailboxes would be robbed and ballots would be forged or fraudulently signed as states moved to vote-by-mail, despite five states already using this system without trouble before the pandemic.
The co-chairs of the Election Laws Committee Rep. John Lawn of Watertown and Sen. Barry Finegold of Andover released a bill on Friday night, giving members of their committee 48 hours to review and vote on whether to recommend the bill to the full House and Senate.
Lawn said the plan is for House Democrats to caucus on Tuesday, and to take up the legislation on Wednesday when they meet, remotely, in a full formal session.
"We've been voting by mail since the Civil War when soldiers went away. President Trump has voted by mail the last few elections, as has the vice president. We understand we don't need a polarizing issue right now to call our elections into question, but we do need to provide options, especially for our seniors, and we think we've addressed that," Lawn said.
The bill directs Secretary of State William Galvin to mail an application by July 15 to every registered voter in the state so that they can, if they choose, request a ballot for both the primary and the general election. There were over 4.58 million residents registered to vote in the March presidential primary.
Galvin would also be instructed to create an online portal for registered voters to request a mail-in ballot electronically, instead of returning their ballot application by mail.
For voters who choose not to participate by mail, the proposed legislation would, for the first time ever, create a seven-day window for in-person early voting before the primaries, and a 14-day early voting period before the general election, including two weekends.
The third option for voters would be to show up as they normally would on election day at their local polling location, but Lawn said the bill would give city and town clerks the flexibility to eliminate the exit desk where poll workers typically check a voter out after they fill in their ballot and before they slide it into the counting machine.
By requiring only a check-in desk, Lawn said the hope is to relieve some of the pressure on clerks to find poll workers during the pandemic.
Many election reform advocates and some elected officials have been calling for ballots to be mailed automatically to every registered voter, but other critics said it would create complications, for instance, with unenrolled voters who can choose which primary they would like to vote in.
Lawn was among those who wanted to go the extra step and simply mail ballots to all voters, but described the committee's bill as a compromise.
"We definitely understand the complication of mail-in ballots without an application and this is common ground that we found and we think the right way to go," Lawn said.
Galvin had hoped to begin printing ballots as soon as June 2, and floated a legislative proposal of his own similar to this one that would have greatly expanded the early voting windows around the Sept. 1 primary and Nov. 3 general election and allowed registered voters to request a ballot either electronically or in writing.
"We've worked with the secretary. I would not say we're in 100 percent agreement on everything, but we've worked together," Lawn said, when asked if Galvin backed this latest bill.
"This bill is going to give people many options to feel safe while voting in the fall," said Election Laws Senate Chairman Barry Finegold. "First, it aggressively encourages people to vote early by mail. Second, it provides voters with the ability to vote early in person. Third, it allows those who have health concerns related to COVID-19 to vote by absentee ballot. Fourth, it puts protective measures in place to let people to vote safely in person on Election Day. I am grateful to all of the partners who made this legislation possible, including Chairman Lawn, Election Laws Committee members, Secretary Galvin’s office, and the advocates who came together to craft this comprehensive bill."
The Legislature authorized the expanded use of mail-in voting for two special Senate elections held last week and two more special elections for House seats that will take place on Tuesday.
Galvin said that more than 30 percent of the ballots cast in the Senate specials in western Massachusetts and on the Upper Cape and Plymouth areas were mail-in, with the numbers as high as 60 percent in some communities.
"These vote by mail rates reveal not only how popular the system is, but how practical it is too.Amidst a pandemic, people should never have to choose between their health and their vote," said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, the executive director of MassVOTE.
The issue of mail-in voting ignited this week when President Trump said there was "NO WAY (ZERO!)" chance that it could be done without being "substantially fraudulent," prompting Twitter to tag the president's tweet as misleading, and add a link for readers to "get the facts" about mail-in voting.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who is not on the ballot this fall, so far has not indicated whether he would support expanded vote-by-mail. While the issue has grabbed headlines and activists have argued a decision on voting options must come soon from Beacon Hill, Baker has suggested multiple times that he has not given it much thought and that there was time before a decision needed to be made.
The Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University has estimated that universal vote-by-mail could cost the state between $12 million and $30 million for the general election alone, though money from the CARES Act could be put toward that purpose. Lawn said Galvin also has some funds that could be used to upgrade the technology to accept ballot applications.
“We still have to work out some of the cost but we do have CARES Act money,” Lawn said.